Snoring away from the past into the future

Failure has no place in the land of opportunities. How then does one explain the success of America's first literary hero, Rip Van Winkle? For Rip is certainly a failure from the moment he appeared on the scene 199 years ago tomorrow. He is a shiftless alcoholic who shirks all responsibilities. And it is all his failures that make it easy to lose sight of Rip's success - Rip Van Winkle might just have been literature's first time traveller. Well, if one does not take into account Sleeping Beauty, that is.

By Srimoyee Bagchi
  • Published 22.06.18
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Failure has no place in the land of opportunities. How then does one explain the success of America's first literary hero, Rip Van Winkle? For Rip is certainly a failure from the moment he appeared on the scene 199 years ago tomorrow. He is a shiftless alcoholic who shirks all responsibilities. And it is all his failures that make it easy to lose sight of Rip's success - Rip Van Winkle might just have been literature's first time traveller. Well, if one does not take into account Sleeping Beauty, that is.

Naysayers will dismiss this; Rip, after all, was not actively travelling à la the Time Traveller in H.G. Well's Time Machine or Doctors Strange and Who. He fell asleep and time passed. Yet, long before he managed to wink away time's cruel ticking, the sixth century philosopher, Angelus Silesius, wrote: "Time is of your own making;/ its clock ticks in your head./ The moment you stop thought/ time too stops dead." Rip and good ol' Sleeping Beauty do exactly this. In stopping the hands of time, at least in their minds, they escape an unpleasant situation and find a dream match respectively.

Escaping the savagery of time and cheating time to undo a past mistake have been the most powerful - and probably only - motivations behind travelling in time. The idea of time travel is by no means new. It originated on the day the first caveman dropped a stone on his foot. But what is it that first allowed man to conceive of a past that was different from the present? What gave him hope that the difference in the two periods might mean that there would be a time in the future when his lot in life would change?

The original time machine might just be the printing press. Before its invention, the idea of temporal dislocation seemed next to impossible. Big changes over time were not visible or accessible to most, making them see the future as relatively similar to the past. Once past events began being transported into the future in the time capsules called books, and these became easily accessible to all, it was easy to imagine a forward trajectory.

Even more ancient though, is a mechanism people have always carried within themselves: memory. For what is remembering, if not travelling through time? The very way in which memory works - playing tricks and conjuring events - allows humans to imagine a more palatable past. Travelling to or sleeping his way into a time when none remembers him lets Rip narrate the past as he imagines it. A Rip who might have been a pariah had his life not been put on snooze, thus emerges a "reverenced" village patriarch, effectively undoing or erasing past mistakes.